A complete version of this review can be found at: James A. Throgmorton. 2011. Review of Sandercock and Attili’s Multimedia Explorations in Urban Policy and Planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research 31, 1 (Spring): 112-113.
This is a richly illustrated collection of 16 essays plus a preface and introduction, which explores “a new frontier in the urban planning and policy fields, a frontier ‘beyond the flatlands’” (p. xxxi). The “flatlands” (social-science-oriented planning) refers metaphorically to Flatland, Edwin Abbott’s 1882 novel about an imaginary two-dimensional reality and the discord and upheaval produced by the entry of a three-dimensional sphere into it. Exploring this frontier, the editors can see “the potential applications of multimedia – the combination of multiple contents (both traditional and digital: texts, still images, animations, audio and video productions) and interactive platforms (offline interactive CD-ROMs, online websites and forums, digital environments) – in the urban policy and planning fields” (p. xx).
Positioning their book as part of the storytelling turn in planning, they explore ways in which urban professions can become more attuned to what Sandercock has previously called the city of spirit, the city of memory, and the city of desire. In their view, the various essays in the book “demonstrate the incredibly rich potential, through multimedia, for manifesting an epistemology of multiplicity, for providing multiple forms of voice and thus participation” (p. xxi). They point to ways in which multimedia can stimulate dialogue, nurture community engagement and oppositional forms of planning, create opportunities for enlightening research, and “offer transformative learning experiences, ‘educating the heart’ through mobilizing a democracy of the senses” (p. xxi).
My sense is that this is a very admirable collection of essays, which greatly advances the intellectual project of treating stories and storytelling as crucial parts of planning and urban transformation. Although all of the essays are meritorious, I find several of them to be especially valuable: Sandercock’s “From the Campfire to the Computer,” Attili’s “Beyond the Flatlands,” Sandercock’s “Mobilizing the Human Spirit,” Rubin’s “(Re)Presenting the Street,” Wagner’s “Digital Media and the Politics of Disaster Recovery in New Orleans,” Hallenbeck’s “Social Justice and Video,” Attili’s “Representations of an Unsettled City,” Blake’s “Participatory Design and Howard Roark,” Decandia’s “Learning as an Aesthetic Experience,” Dudley’s “Cinema and the ‘City of the Mind,’” and Isserman et al.’s “Stinging Real!”
On the whole, the book is well worth reading by anyone interested in this particular frontier. That said, I also find a few problematic aspects in how Sandercock and Attili map the terrain.
One problematic feature has to do with incorporating multimedia-based storytelling into planning curricula. Sandercock and Attili’s book implicitly cries out for a reconfiguration of planning education away from its focus on the “Flatland” tools of social-science-oriented planning toward a much more interactive and interdisciplinary education focusing on place transformation. This would require building new connections with disciplines in the humanities. At a deeper level, it would also require rethinking the ways in which the traditional staples of planning (microeconomics and statistics, for example) are taught. I doubt that many planning educators would be willing to undertake such a wholesale shift. Nor do I think such a wholesale shift would be wise. What would be really exciting, however, is to see one major planning department take the risk, cut a bold new niche for itself, and reconfigure planning as a creative synthesis of the social sciences, the design arts, and the humanities. Are there any takers out there?
A more important and challenging aspect of Sandercock and Attili’s mapping has to do with the politics of what they advocate. Time and again they and their contributors emphasize the value of multimedia-based storytelling as a means of facilitating interaction, dialogue, collaboration, and participation, especially on the part of traditionally marginalized groups. While writing my review of their book, however, I was also witnessing the rise of the Tea Party movement in the United States (not to mention similar phenomena in Europe). Although the book does not explicitly refer to this movement, members of the Tea Party are influencing action right now, and their views have enormous implications for the viability of the inclusionary tools and policies that Sandercock, Attili and their co-authors highlight.
Although some observers have condemned Tea Partiers as neo-fascist ethno-nationalists, that is not how they (or at least most of them) see themselves. They see themselves as “real Americans,” as oppositional groups who want to “take their country back” from traditionally marginalized groups (e.g., Latinos and African Americans). In other words, members of the Tea Party movement feel threatened by the very groups that the authors of this book want to include. In this context, real dialogue appears profoundly difficult to accomplish or facilitate.
Linking the book and the Tea Party movement, two questions arise: (1) how would multimedia-based storytelling work in the hands of “real Americans”? And (2) can multimedia-based storytelling facilitate constructive dialogue between the Tea Party movement and members of the groups they want to exclude?
With this context in mind, my sense is that Sandercock, Attilli, and their contributors have produced a very fine piece of work that goes awry by narrowly fixating on the practice of planners and other urban professionals while ignoring the forces that are transforming the deep politics of contemporary society. Instead of emphasizing how multimedia-based storytelling can transform planning practice and education, they could have helped readers understand how those the technologies can facilitate constructive engagement with people who fear government, fear planning, fear unfamiliar people, fear change, indeed seem to fear everything.
What to do? In brief, I would strongly encourage Sandercock and Attili to expand on this brilliant exploration of the frontier to probe how multimedia-based storytelling might facilitate productive engagement and shared learning between people who have radically polarized views about the merits of transforming “the flatlands” into something unnervingly new.